When I arrived at Princeton, I had been placed with three other roommates in a Gothic dorm suite. I was proud of the things I had accomplished so far. I'd been tied for valedictorian at a huge and competitive public high school, I'd been a soloist at the All-State choral and orchestral concert, and I'd been president of and/or varsity lettered in all my extracurriculars.
So as I discovered that everybody I met had also been valedictorian, editor of the school newspaper, an All-State varsity athlete or musician, etc., I had quite an adjustment. I had to learn how to stay present with my own inner experience and on what was in front of me directly.
I've been thinking about that experience these past two weeks as I have been watched my incoming 9th graders at Lowell adjust to the shock of discovering what it means to arrive at the next level.
The classes are much, much more demanding than they are used to, even at the strongest middle schools. And in addition, as every visitor can see at the front entrance of our school, there is a board that celebrates accomplishments of many of our Lowell graduates since our founding in 1856. There are three Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, Broadway and Hollywood stars, admirals and generals and and politicians and world leaders. There are sports legends and pop culture icons, civil rights heroes, the founder of The Gap, and friggin' Lemony Snicket, among others.
Every race, ethnic background, and gender seems to be well-represented.
No wonder my poor kids are freaking out.
Now I try to imagine what it must be like to be one of the very few African-American students in our school. Some of them appear to be doing just fine, but I imagine it is a very strange and disorienting experience to find yourself in what must seem like an endless ocean of whiteness.
We are trying to be intentional in how we are supporting these students and transforming our school culture. We are following best practices and reflecting critically on how we are doing and how we can support their experience. I wish that I could magically airlift in a larger number of faculty of color so that they felt more reflected in the adult community they see all around them. But that is not how public education works. And we have no time to indulge in magical thinking.
So this is the point at which I am introducing some Talking Points on what I like to call desert island thinking. It is the best way I have found to help students to cope with their own feelings of imposter syndrome and the need to be their own best supporters as they enter a completely new territory.
I call it desert island thinking because it is what helped me to cope when I felt overwhelmed and alone as a freshman at Princeton. I reminded myself over and over that, if I were stuck on a desert island, I would want to be with other smart and motivated and hopefully good-hearted people because that would give us our best chances to survive and thrive.
In my teaching life, I think of this as Otter Nation. Our motto is, Hold hands and stick together. When sea otters sleep, they hold hands so they don't drift apart from their tribe. The same is true of us math teachers. We hold hands through the #MTBoS and through #educolor , through Twitter and blogs, and through every social media-based method we can find.
We hold our students in our hearts and try to give them every possible support and advantage we can provide.
For me, a part of that involves helping them to become metacognitively aware and and self-reflective about what they are experiencing and how they can cope with it, how they are brave and well-equipped and the advantages of holding hands and sticking together.
Our Latin Club has hoodies with one of my favorite lines from Virgil's Aeneid emblazoned on the back: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, which I would loosely translate as, "Perhaps some day we will laugh about this." This is pretty much where many of my students — and especially my students of color — find themselves at the start of Week 3 too. At this point in Aeneid I, Aeneas and his troops have been driven from their homeland in Troy and find themselves on storm-tossed seas, wondering how they are going to survive.
A growth mindset, and some desert island thinking, along with Talking Points about it, are the best support I can offer them.